“Proud to call myself a midwife”: Jeanette Freeman reflects on 39-year career

Jeanette Freeman (left) with midwife Ruth Boaz (right) on Kitava Island, Papua New Guinea, in 2019.

The following article is written by Jeanette Freeman, who has retired after 39 years at Peninsula Health

My name is Jeanette Freeman and I came to Frankston Hospital in 1982. I intended to stay for only 12 months, just long enough to complete my midwifery training before returning to country life.  No-one is more surprised than me that 12 months turned into 39 years.

In 1982, Peninsula Health was known as the much smaller ‘Frankston Community Hospital’. Having my sister Rosina, who was also a midwife, already on the staff made my welcome very warm. Very happily and always keeping work separate from family life, we were able to enjoy a 20-year professional working relationship.

For me it was a lesson quickly learned that the excitement, the joy and the sense of privilege that surges through you when you are the one to assist a woman through labour and birth, when it is your hands that pass a baby into the waiting arms of a mother, when it is you that prepares her for home feeling confident to mother her baby, is all quite simply addictive.

From my first birthing experience, I knew I never wanted to do anything but be a midwife. I had found my niche, I had found where I wanted to be and I had found where I belonged. I am proud to say that 39 years later, my last birth was as thrilling as my first.

Around 1,900 babies were born in my first year at Frankston Hospital. The mothers and babies were cared for by a small team of obstetricians, multiple GPs, no registrars and just two Hospital Medical Officers (HMOs) who worked very long hours covering both obstetrics and paediatrics. At this time you had to be a midwife to work in midwifery and the only way to become a midwife was to first register as a general nurse.

Midwives delivered babies – we always have – but in 1982 it was often because the doctor hadn’t made it in time. It was also a time when new mothers were encouraged to rest. A five-to-10 day stay was the norm, with early discharge almost unheard of. Newly born babies were mostly cared for in the nursery by a team of mothercraft nurses and only taken out to their mothers during feed times. Feed times were rigid – 09:30, 13:30, 17:30, 21:30. Occasionally a mother, usually an experienced mother, would want to demand feed but this too was unusual. Visiting hours were short and strict with babies often still being lined up for viewing behind the nursery window.

Jeanette Freeman’s graduation photo, 1981.

The life of a midwife today

Fast forward 39 years and we are no longer a Maternity ward but rather an integrated  Women’s Health Unit. We are now nudging ever so close to 3,000 births a year. 2021 is on track to be the year we break through to that phenomenal number. We have a new group of obstetricians based on the Peninsula, GPs no longer attend births, we have welcomed a team of Registrars, and a team of HMOs complete the medical team. Obstetrics and gynaecology has its own identity, now separate from paediatrics. Unchanged is that everyone’s working day remains long and very busy.  

Midwives remain the largest group in the workforce – strong and vital. No longer trained in hospitals, but rather learning is now university-based. Students remain very welcome at Frankston Hospital. Two valued mothercraft nurses remain on staff in a supportive role and a social worker is now also an integral member of our care team.

Uncomplicated pregnancy, labour, birth and recovery is now the domain of the midwife. Midwives no longer deliver babies but rather we assist a woman to birth her baby. We strive to be baby friendly, therefore we no longer separate well babies from their mothers, now preferring to keep them close at hand by their mother’s bedside and rigid feeding regimes have well passed in favour of demand feeding. Length of stay has reduced to two or three nights but many choose to go home after a minimum six-hour stay. Home visits by midwives now support mothers after discharge with additional specialised lactation support being available for those needing a bit ofextra help.

A midwife’s scope of practice has changed tremendously since 1982.  There are now exciting opportunities for midwives at Frankston that were not available to me when my career began.  Pleasingly Frankston has always supported this growth and development of its midwives.  

“Mostly, I’m proud to call myself a midwife”

I’m proud to have had such a long relationship with Frankston Hospital.  I’m proud to have invested so many years into the specialty field of women’s health. It’s been quite the journey, frustrating, exhausting and challenging at times, but mostly wonderful. I’m proud that I never became complacent, every birth being special, that I never wanted to stop learning, and that I never stopped caring, always wanting to treat people with kindness. Mostly, I’m proud to call myself a midwife.

Early in my career I recognised the need for us to change our approach to how we cared for those suffering a pregnancy loss. I’m proud of the many years I dedicated to bring about change in this area of midwifery care. Some of my most precious memories, some of my greatest rewards stem from my devotion to this specialised field of midwifery.

I’m proud to have been chosen to join a small group of midwives selected to learn advanced skills such as perineal suturing, cannulation and newborn baby examinations.  Pioneers for the generations of Midwives to follow. Commonplace now but someone had to be first.

Jeanette Freeman in Fiji, 2012.

Giving back

Knowing my career was coming to an end, it was very important to me to give back to a career which had given so much to me. Knowing only I could bring this about, I was thrilled when I was given the opportunity to travel to Papua New Guinea (PNG) in 2019.  A few years earlier in remote Fiji I had had an opportunity to meet with and discuss women’s health issues with a group of village women. It was a brief and impromptu encounter but it had wet my appetite to broaden this experience.

Meeting midwife Ruth Boaz on the island of Kitava, PNG, was a wonderful experience. Being welcomed as a wise woman was a very proud moment. Before leaving the island, I asked Ruth to write me a wish list of her most needed items. No promises made, but I did vow to try and fulfil this list on my return to Australia. Supported by my Unit Manager and midwives Samantha Bryant and Amanda Nissen, ‘Project PNG’ was launched. With the support of my colleagues throughout Maternity Services, I’m proud to say everything on Ruth’s list except for medicines was acquired. I’m proud that six large packing boxes of maternity and baby supplies including 500 birthing kits were delivered to Ruth. This was the full stop on my career I was searching for.

The future

Forty-three years of shift work in a busy clinical setting has taken its toll. Retiring on the 16 March, 2021 has left me with empty arms and I find myself driving along the roads hoping to stumble across a woman who hasn’t quite made it to the hospital in time.  My alarm clock has been tucked away in a draw and I dream of very happy times ahead. Maybe I’ll return to Fiji or maybe PNG will beckon me. Or maybe, just maybe, my return to country life has arrived.